PACH Member Dr. David E. Kirkland’s Graduation Speech for NYU Steinhardt

Good morning, welcome, and congratulations.

Thank you, President Hamilton and Dean Brewer for creating space for leadership. And thank you to our 2017 graduates for your excellence.

I’m honored to be here today. To join with you in a celebration of work well done, of achievements not wasted, but which mean more than simple plaques and certificates. Achievements that, ultimately, mean hope.

That’s what I want I want to talk about today: I want to talk about hope. Not hope as in verb, that is, the idea that we should hope for things. The verb ”hope” has always seemed weak to me; it seems passive and quaint. To me, hope as verb “I hope things will be okay” lacks agency. This kind of hoping (the verb form of hope), for me, has meant something other than patience or will, but charity, something close to pity. I would rather you not hope in that way but instead persist—go out there and get things, make things happen.

But I’ve always liked “Hope” as a noun, as in you are my hope—the hope of today and tomorrow. As a noun, the term takes on new resonance– it comes to mean that in the bleakest moment, or the darkest hour, light can be found. Hope as a noun means that though the journey is long, we can be assured that at the end of our journey there is a destination. The noun form of Hope can also mean something even more powerful than these things.

I look around the room today, and I see Ashley Ellison —a young vibrant educator on her way to graduate school to further her studies in education—who a couple of semesters ago would board the 6 train, venturing to a foreign space daily to deliver sometimes unwanted lessons. In the beginning, things seemed rough, but by the semester’s end, the light of Ashley’s spirit transcended the darknesses of her students’ circumstances.

Her waking presence represented a symbol of hope for her South Bronx students. Ashley made a difference for those young men and women and for a professor searching for the essence of a profession that so many have come to disparage.

Teaching, and teachers, get a bad rap in country. A 2014 article in the Atlantic declared: “America hates teachers.” If teachers like Ashley are our hope, it seems as if a world unable to see who teachers really are is left in despair.

Despite what some may say, you are a testimony that our light shines bright. In fact, you are our light—more than graduates, you are the daybreak against the darkness of dawn. You are our hope in place of doubt.

The apostasy of the moment only gives your presence more value, more urgency. Because being hope in a unbelieving world makes a world of difference. Just as a committed teacher makes a lifetime of a difference for a young person in need. I know this, I’ve lived it. 

We might not feed them bread, but we will fill them with ideas, we will serve them the produce of our labors— which is imagination and creativity, which is inspiration and determination, care and possibility.

We will give them who we are. We will give them hope! Some will reject this hope. But many will find their way because of it. So we must never become complacent because hope endures even in times of rejection. By this I am reminded of a story; you may have heard this story before, but I find comfort in telling it. 

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a young girl approaching. As the girl walked, she paused every so often and as she grew closer, the man could see that she was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The girl came closer still and the man cried out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young girl paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high,” she said, “they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” The girl bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

Hope is making a difference. Teachers make the difference. So please never forget it. Never forget who we are …

Again, congratulations to you the class of 2017. To all of our distinguished honorees. To you, I thank you. I celebrate you.